Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Right To Demolish

The latest chapter in the destruction of Norristown's historical architecture seems to have begun this week when the Preservation Society posted the photo at the right with the caption "This building at 826 DeKalb Street, Norristown has been condemned and is scheduled for demolition." I say "seems" because the story began long before that.

826 Dekalb and its twin 824 were built in 1899. They're Greek Revival style (no arches over the windows and double chimneys), but also have some Italianate elements, which was another popular style at the time. 826 in particular has a unusually nice historical facade on the front, with marble stone facing. Both houses were built 3 stories in front with a 2 story section in back. 826 has another add-on in the rear (as you can see in the next photo).

I asked NPS what they knew of the situation. It was from them I found out that the demolition plan had gone before Norristown's Historical Area Review Board, so I asked a friend on the HARB. (I should note that the volunteers on the HARB, unlike many of the other board, are all professionals in the field of historic architecture or have considerable knowledge of it--they go out of their way to help our historical homeowners keep within the HARB guidelines without going over-budget. They are our most underappreciated board for the work they do.)

Apparently the HARB believed, after reading the engineer's report, that only the back of the building needed to be demolished. My friend went to take a look at the building himself yesterday. Here are his observations:

"The street (west) front façade and the north façade of the front portion of the house are plumb and without significant damage. The floor structure runs north-south and appears level. The rear wall of the front portion and the rear of the structure proper are collapsing and should be removed... still has many of its original details, has a degree of formality that is unique to the neighborhood and represents the period in which it was built very well...It is worth noting that in general, the removal of one half of a twin never looks as good as would an intact pair. Arguably it reduces the property value of the neighborhood to have the rhythm of the buildings disrupted and having the north façade of the 824 property covered with stucco and without windows. It certainly must have a negative impact on the value of the 824 property. "

Moreover, the loss of everyone of these historic buildings decreases the value of our town.

So I posted my own question to Facebook yesterday -- "...someone please explain to me why we have a HARB to supposedly protect the historic areas if no one in the municipal government listens to them and keeps allowing our historic buildings to be demolished? What will we have then? A review board for all of our vacant lots?"

Response from Councilwoman Valerie Scott Cooper: "In response to the post regarding the property at 826 DeKalb St, both the Municipal Engineer and the owner's inspector have deemed the structure dangerous. And it is too expensive for the owner to repair. He does have the right to tear it down."

Response from Councilwoman Olivia Brady: "This is an unfortunate situation and too often what happens in Norristown - demolition by neglect. But yes, as Councilwoman Scott Cooper said, the building has been deemed dangerous by our engineers and the property owner is within his rights to demolish. HARBs, by law, all over the state can only advise and have no real teeth in preservation so they cannot demand the building be saved."

The owner listed in the Montco Property Records is GMAC Mortgage of Ft Washington, but on looking them up, I found they'd filed for bankruptcy in December of 2013, only 2 months after they came into possession of the house. They were taken over by Ocwen Financial of West Palm Beach, FL. Ocwen is the owner listed on the HARB application. So I looked them up. Their assets in December of 2015 totaled (you might want to sit down) 7.405 BILLION. Their sales numbers for the last quarter of 2015 were estimated to be 1.4 MILLION.

Pardon me if I don't feel real sorry for them, with how "expensive" shoring up a single wall would be after demolishing the back section of the house. All the more so because Ocwen has been in trouble more than once for taking advantage of their borrowers, according to the Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. People have lost their homes because of Ocwen's misconduct.

I do agree that, by law, we can't demand our historic buildings be saved. Yet, rather than demand, we could at least coax. We apparently don't DO anything. Council could ask questions when situations like this arise. If Codes is doing its job, we should have more than enough notice of a building's deterioration long before it gets to the point where demolition is necessary. We could ask owners "How can we as a town help you save this historic structure?" We could let the HARB help them. And if we're dealing with out-of-town, absentee slumlords, as we are in the case of 826 Dekalb and elsewhere, then we need some laws on the books that would make owners more accountable for maintaining their properties, so we never need get to the point where they solve their problems with demolition.

So what will happen to 826 Dekalb?. Possibly its removal will so weaken the remaining twin that 824 will have to be torn down as well. Then we'll have a big vacant lot in that block and someone like Sarah Peck will come along wanting to build a hundred condos on the spot. Hmm. I wonder if that's what Council is thinking. Level all of our historic districts so we can become Condo City, with people living elbow-to-elbow so we have more residents to tax.  I might also point out that 826 Dekalb is 463 feet from Arbor Heights, the erection of which, Ms. Peck insists, cleared up all the blight in the neighborhood. There are other neglected historic properties within 2 blocks of Arbor Heights. Is Council doing anything about them or will they be destroyed as well?

Hopefully, some of the interior historical features of 826 Dekalb will be salvaged. There are marble fireplaces, chandeliers, etc.

I have to say, unless I start hearing ideas out of Council soon about better ways to preserve our historic districts and the architecture they contain, I will work actively to make sure none of our current council reps get re-elected. In less than 2 years, we've lost Montgomery Hospital, we're slated to lose the Ersine Tennis Club at 1529 Dekalb and now 826 Dekalb. Council has shown nothing but indifference in each case. We don't need people running this town who nonchalantly let our crown jewels be destroyed. 

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